Intermedial Acting for Hybrid Performance Environments

This paper considers specific techniques that actors apply in performing simultaneously to camera and to co-present (theatrical) spectators. The sorts of work (technique, skill) required of actors by medium-specific formats such as dramatic theatre, television series or film narratives are broadly familiar. There is far less certainty concerning techniques appropriate to hybrid (actual/virtual, 2D/3D, co-present/distributed) performance environments. Typically, these entail modes of performance that play out across different spaces simultaneously, address audiences synchronously through diverse media, and involve interaction with other performers/participants who may be both present and remote. 

The intermedial actor must therefore calibrate her interactions with fellow performers, mediating devices, spaces and spectators in ways that are suitable to this hybrid scene. What are the requirements of an actor in relation to (for example) eyeline, circles of attention, reciprocity, rapport, intimacy, interiority and externality, passivity and projection? I explore this by addressing the work of two actors, David Annen and Bella Merlin. I have directed both in multimedia theatre projects that involve live and recorded performance to camera and simultaneous theatrical presentation. Annen has also performed in Complicite’s A Disappearing Number and The Master and Margarita, and features in the Witcher video game series. Merlin is Professor of Acting at the University of California Riverside, and author of Acting: The Basics (Routledge, 2010) and The Complete Stanislavsky Toolkit (Nick Hern Books, 2007). I consider their particular techniques and perspectives, developed through diverse intermedial projects, in order to examine how the actor performs with and through technology. I explore emerging formations of presence, (de)centring and interaction, and the reframing of a Stanislavskian perspective on acting in relation to hybrid performance environments. How, now, does the actor prepare? What is the actor’s task? And how can performance be delivered (actioned, executed) appropriately in an intermedial performance scene?


Is it possible to act diversely for two or more media simultaneously? The sorts of work – the particular techniques and skills – required of actors by medium-specific formats such as dramatic theater, television series or film narratives are broadly familiar. There is far less certainty concerning techniques appropriate to hybrid performance environments that combine, for example, actual and virtual spaces, two- and three-dimensional mises-en-scène, and co-present and distributed production. Typically, these entail modes of performance that play out across different spaces simultaneously, address audiences synchronously through diverse media, and involve interaction with other performers or participants who may be both present and remote. The intermedial actor must therefore calibrate her interactions with fellow performers, mediating devices, spaces and spectators in ways suitable to this hybrid scene. How, then, does the actor prepare, present and sustain performance in this environment?

I shall explore the perspective of two actors, David Annen and Bella Merlin, whose reflections help us gather knowledge from the coal-face (or, better, interfaces) of intermedial performance. Merlin is also Professor of Acting at the University of California Riverside, and author of Acting: The Basics (Routledge, 2010), Konstantin Stanislavsky (in the Routledge Performance Practitioners series, 2003) and The Complete Stanislavsky Toolkit (Nick Hern Books, 2007).[1] Annen has performed in Complicite’s A Disappearing Number (2007) and The Master and Margarita (2011), and features in The Witcher video game series (Annen voices Shroud in The Witcher 2, 2011), in addition to an array of work in theater and television.[2]

I have worked as director with Merlin on three multimedia projects, and with Annen on four.[3] In August 2014 the three of us collaborated on the development of a version of Hekabe, by Euripides, that features three actors, one (Merlin) playing the protagonist, the others sharing the other characters. We also featured a chorus leader. The project envisages three actors in separate rooms, each performing to camera, mediated together in a videoscape. The intention is that the piece can be watched by a co-present audience in each room, who also watch the actors together in the videoscape, and by an audience online.[4] The project draws on previous work that we have developed that involves performance across theater and video (both live and recorded). The theme of the conference Bodies on Stage: Acting Confronted by Technology (Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3, 3-5 June 2014) provided the opportunity to ask these two actors to reflect on what it is to act with, through and in spite of technological interfaces – here, predominantly digital sound and video.

I conducted the interviews separately.[5] I have edited the material, and since I asked both actors broadly the same questions, gather their comments thematically, below, for the sake of coherence. I have made occasional small tidyings of grammar, but otherwise the actors’ words are entirely their own, unless I have made elisions or clarifications that are indicated by square brackets. I convey them at some length, in order to privilege this speaking from the inside. How, now, does the actor prepare? What is the actor’s task? And how can performance be delivered (actioned, executed) appropriately in an intermedial performance scene?

Andy Lavender (AL): David, is it different, performing in drama and in a multimedia environment?

David Annen (DA): I think it is different. There are two things to talk about. One is the intimacy of the camera, and one is the vastness of the scale, once you start using projections and a huge sound score and other kinds of technological interventions. It does change the job, and the way it’s received. I’m aware that when I work in television, it’s a much more intimate medium and you can do a lot less. These are truisms – that the camera will see what you’re thinking without you having to amplify it. And it is lovely to be able to do that on the stage, knowing that a theatrical audience will get a double perspective of seeing you very close-up perhaps, on the screen and through close camerawork, and be able to read your eyes and see your whole body language at the same time because they’re seeing you in the same physical space. I find that really interesting.

AL: Bella, is it different?

Bella Merlin (BM): I think the preparation is the same, and then the actual articulation is different.

AL: How so?

BM: I’m a real advocate of actors expanding their sense of dual consciousness. When I came to America I really did become aware that my students’ main thread of training was introspection – “I’ve gotta feel what the character’s feeling.” Which evidently is a heritage from the American Method. And my own experience in Russia was, “You’ve gotta keep your consciousness going.”’[6]  Of course you’ve got to be aware of your audience, and of course you’ve got to be aware of the journey you’re taking them on, and therefore the two have to be constantly balanced.

AL: If the performance is both to a live theater audience and the camera, are you differently dual, or do you tend to privilege one over the other?

BM: I think I was privileging the camera. I’m not sure I was really in any way playing to the live audience in the room, but I was aware that I was playing to the mediated live audience.

DA: Yes, if the camera’s there I definitely concentrate more on the camera. Because you know that it’s going to be mercilessly attentive to whatever’s going on with you and your acting.

AL: But is it nonetheless bifocal? Are you consciously producing two registers of performance at once?

DA: I think I’m conscious of producing two registers at once. I think of one as being particularly thought and face, and the other as being body. When we were doing London My Lover I was aware of the camera being on my face, and of being able to act down the barrel of the camera sometimes, while the rest of my body was for the audience. And I like that very much.

AL: What do you need to do in relation to eyeline? Is it a question of saying, “Right I’m going to look at that dot on the wall, and that’s it,” or is there more to be said?

DA: No. It’s purely technical, and it reminds me of times when I’ve performed without any technologies, and you’re performing a scene where both of you are facing out front, and you’re meant to be talking to each other, so we imagine that the eyeline is there, and the director has to say “Yes that works,” or not. Sometimes it’s slightly absurd. But not as absurd as it is when you’re working in television, and they’re doing takes from different angles, and you might find yourself looking at something really unhelpful, like the boom operator’s bum crack, when you’re trying to imagine another character. At least in the theater they are there, they are doing it at the same time as you. But yeah, it’s purely technical, and you need help, you need to be told whether it works or not. Sometimes I defocus, in order not to see properly the thing that I have to be looking in the direction of, so that I won’t be put off by seeing it.

AL: Of course, the effect of eyeballing the camera in a live relay scenario is that you’re eyeballing the audience.

DA: It’s true, so you know that’s happening, but you have to sustain that somehow with a very strong visualization […] because you are nourished by eye contact, whether it’s eye contact with the audience because you can see whether they’re with you or not, even if you can just see the shapes of them and the glint of their glasses in the darkness, you have some sense of them and their level of movement and attention. Even more particularly, and I found this a frustration in our Hekabe work, you’re not eyeballing other members of the cast if you’re acting straight down the camera. It’s slightly different if the camera’s observing, you, but still […] the viewing eye of your audience is so hot and demands so much of your attention that it does interfere with your relationship with the other person on stage. I’m used to looking at the camera onstage and feeling that my attention’s going into that void, it’s like a blue-black void which is the camera lens. I don’t quite know how to sustain the relationships onstage and the relationship with the audience at the same time as doing it.

AL: Do you have to sustain those relationships imaginatively?

DA: Yes, and I think I have to extrapolate from the clues more actively, so I get a chance to glance at the audience, or hear them scratching, or silence, and then imagine their attention. If you’re working (and every actor to a greater or lesser extent does work, I think, on the basic Stanislavskian model that you have an intention when you’re performing) and you see whether that attention is achieved in the goal of the other performer, and you’re not getting any of that…

AL: But isn’t that the job of rehearsal?

DA: Well, that’s going to inform you, but it changes in performance. Once there’s an audience there everything changes, and that’s when you’re not going to get the chance to watch your fellow performers’ performance developing, or happening fresh that night.

So what’s the work there? Is it to cheat an apparent reciprocity, or is it to achieve a more fine-grained technical delivery that I suppose will have the same effect?

DA: For me it is both remembering everything I saw in rehearsal, being live to whatever auditory clues there are, and trying to foster an entirely new performance style, which is imagining that that blue-black void is a person’s psyche, is the soul that you’re trying to get access to if you’re trying deeply to affect another character. And somehow you’ve got to see them in that void, the way that you might see a face in a crystal ball. And I don’t mean you’re actually imagining their face so much as you’re imagining their essence, and whether it’s being affected by you, if you’re doing that very specific thing of looking at a camera and imagining it’s another character. It’s hard, but also very interesting.

BM: It was very bizarre, there was a real sense of ensemble, even though we were totally isolated. And I felt very bonded to each of the other three actors, even though I didn’t look at them, and I didn’t see them […] It was vital for me to remember what we’d done [together in rehearsal] in the studio, to have that image of looking into Jo’s face, so when I was looking into the black hole that’s the iris of the camera, I’m seeing Jo’s face.

AL: So, do reciprocity and rapport apply differently in multimedia work, where fellow actors might be remote?

DA: I think it’s worth talking about Complicite in this context, because of the different technological problems that are present in Complicite’s work […] you might have three scenes that are working concurrently that aren’t in the same geographical or physical space. […] I find that really tricky, because I like to have a sense of the whole piece that I’m playing while I’m playing it. And that’s difficult in those big technological pieces, particularly when there’s a lot of projection work. The counterbalance to that is that you spend so long playing as a company that you build up a generalized rapport. You do a lot of – anti-technology, if you like – just you and your body in the space, games and exercises, which are to do with balancing the space, perhaps, or improvising purely with your bodies and the other performers, and no support whatsoever, no costume or technical back-up or anything. When it works well, Complicite’s work has that kind of raw, physical, intimate, personal relationship between the performers, who seem to be able to sense what each other do and respond to it.

BM: I think the rapport was immensely important. There was the technique of knowing, “Well actually my eye line has to go there, I can’t step too far forward or I’m out of the shot, I can’t step too far back or I’m in the dark, oh my goodness yes, and there’s my daughter about to be sacrificed. And oh my God, on the other side of the room – and I can’t even see him – is the man who, I’m now at his knees, holding his ankles” […] what was unlocked when the four of us were in the studio [developing the work together] was very useful.

AL: Can you develop intimacy with a camera?

DA: I think that’s a skill that you have to foster. In my work on television and the radio I’ve marveled when I’ve seen an actor doing something when I’ve thought “There’s something special happening between you and that lens, between you and that microphone.”

AL: What were they doing?

DA: They were treating the lens and the microphone as another performer, and as something even more personal, like perhaps treating the microphone as the ear of the lover, or the lens as a completely benign, all-seeing friend and teacher, some ability to unfold and open up to the gaze of the lens or the ear of the microphone, knowing that it would catch everything, and being unafraid of showing it. So a complete focus, and a pulling away of all the defenses.

I’ve seen actors who have seemed to be able to do that technically. I was in a TV crime drama called Criminal Justice [BBC 2008-9] with Ben Wishaw, which involved him being in the dock, and the camera came on a dolly from about twenty feet away from him to literally an inch away from his nose, and he had to play with that camera as it approached him, without fear. Because if a person approaches you like that, it’s hard not to recoil. A bit of technology was approaching him, and I could see him just intensify what he was feeling and thinking, and open it up to that camera to let it in, and it was marvelous.

AL: If I think how this might describe a different technical register, I might think that that’s to do with exteriorizing differently. Is it to do with exteriority?

DA: I feel like a physical openness when everything relaxes inside you, and I feel like something that I’ve engendered in my guts, that’s informed by what I’ve decided in my brain, is flowing unimpeded out through my face and being caught by the camera, which at the same time is of sufficient intensity and clarity to be read by a theater audience that isn’t just looking at that script […] I can’t quite describe what’s contributed to that moment, but I felt it.

AL: In a multimedia scenario with Complicite, are you typically performing in relation to a camera that’s running live, or is the screen material pre-recorded?

DA: Yes, typically the camera will be running live, so there will be some treatment of what you’re doing in terms of multiple images. When we were doing A Disappearing Number there were a lot of intimations of infinity, so you might be filmed and that image of you would be repeated multiply. So there’s been a live camera, and a lot of pre-recorded video work which might also involve you as an actor, and pre-recorded audio particularly, which you have to cope with. One thing I found difficult to deal with was in the continuity of my performance [as] GH Harding, the Mathematics don. I had to somehow square in my own imagination – I don’t think it was that difficult for the audience – the performance that I was giving that night, with the performance that I was giving in voiceover, which was often representing my thoughts or my journal, which I’d actually recorded a couple of years before. I was two years down the line in terms of my interpretation and development of that character, but I still had to deal with my two-year-old interpretation of him, which I know might have certain glitches in it, or things that I didn’t like, that I would have to hear every single night. Whereas of course if you’re performing just as yourself, with nothing pre-recorded, you can do it every night, and you can develop it.

AL: Bella, you’re an expert on the work of Stanislavski. Do you think a Stanislavski technique straightforwardly applies here, because it’s still to do with the presentation of character?

BM: I knew I had to know my intentions, the line of thought and the line of action. The line of thought was going to stay the same whatever the intermedial quality, but the line of action was going to be very different, because I didn’t have the real person [the other actor] there. So the line of action was going to be this highly integrated technique for the camera. I was as conscious all the time of the precision needed to be in the right… And yet that happens all the time in TV and film. You don’t get many options, and you have to be so aware of the technicalities whilst you’re doing all the narrative, character-driven work. But my attention was very focused on “Is that the right head angle? Is my arm still in shot, in that moment of performance?” [And there] was my own need for some kind of emotional connection. You can’t totally fake that, especially on camera. I went into a room on my own, and I just knew I had to go through the physical score of it. I needed to get the muscle memory – I was practicing how to try to find that imaginative connection to thin air.

AL: What about the Stanislavskian notion of circles of attention, if you’re performing through the camera to an actor who is not immediately in front of you, and then potentially to an audience that could be anywhere?

BM: There could be, in the long-term, people in the biggest circle of attention possible, anywhere on the planet, consuming this as we’re doing it live. I’m very aware of the camera, obviously. I was very aware of the circle of us four actors, even if we couldn’t see each other. I was very aware of the technical people, the person that was standing at the camera with me – as you always are on a film set, they’re as much a part of everything as your fellow actors… so yeah, I think those circles of attention were very potent.

DA: Yes, I think that’s quite a good way of thinking about it, as circles of attention, and some of those circles are now technical circles, perhaps.

AL: You talked earlier about being mindful of intentions. Is that still the first task, to play the intention?

DA: Yes, I think it’s the first task.

AL: Do you need to prepare differently?

DA: Yes. I think the big thing about preparation, for me, is that those final days of rehearsal, or hours before a performance, where you might expect to have the closest scrutiny of your director and the most help in fine-tuning your performance, are likely in this kind of performance to be spent with the director dealing with the technologies. So you have to rely on yourself, and hope to get a bit of help.

AL: That’s true of the work with Complicite?

DA: Yes, Simon [McBurney] tends to compose in technical rehearsal. And so it’s not about you [the actor], and you have to find those resources within yourself. One learns to be a bit more self-reliant and is prepared to push the boat out, and think “Well I know I’ve got to stand here and look there, and […] I don’t know if what I’m presenting is going to do the job, but you’ll tell me, or you’ll be able to have at least thirty per cent of your attention on my performance and how it relates to the other multimedia stuff, and whether it’s at the right level and pitch, and can be seen.” So it’s quite exciting to be in that slightly lonely place. Well, it’s a frontiersman place, isn’t it? You literally feel, I think, onstage, in the previews of the first performances of a piece like this, that you are alone, by yourself, in uncharted territory, where no one has assured you that what you’re doing will work, or is right, or is good. And that’s quite an exciting place to be.

BM: I know one of your questions is what sort of training should one do for this sort of intermedial work and I’m not sure that I’m preparing any differently. I think what was incredibly useful was us doing the work we did in the studio, and really staging it as we would if it was a straightforward production, so that there was a muscle memory, there was – I’m a bit tentative about saying this – but there was an emotion memory.

AL: If you were talking to an acting student about preparing a character for this more hybrid performance environment, are there any tips that you’d give them?

BM: I suppose the main components for me were precision, playfulness, imagination. I’d be encouraging a student actor to really hone their physical score, their line of thought and their line of action. I really liked it, I liked thinking, “Well the head really can only go a little bit there, or the eye line has to go up to there, it’s got to look like I’m looking up at him, even though there’s nothing there.” So that’s where the playfulness comes in. It’s very easy with young actors, especially here in the US, to get so hooked on the emotional life of the character […] Yes sure, that’s one texture, but also enjoy the fact that you’re being put through your paces as an actor like a dancer would be, or an acrobat. You can’t miss the moment, it’s got to be absolutely there, and be equally enjoyable and in no way disruptive to whatever narrative or emotional fabric to building the character.

One of my favorite tools from Stanislavski is this idea of a constant state of inner improvisation, even if there’s a highly fixed score, which the work with the camera has to be. Within it there’s a kind of bubbling playfulness, that something new, a new emotion might arise for me, or a new sensation, or a new provocation. And then [there’s] the power of the imagination. […] So I think I’d be encouraging the student actor, “Remain playful, with the craft as much as anything else, keep it precise and enjoy that precision, and keep the imagination alive.”


Annen and Merlin share their particular techniques and perspectives in order to examine how the actor performs with and through technology. Their responses open into emerging formations of presence, (de)centering and interaction, and the reframing of a Stanislavskian perspective on acting in relation to hybrid performance environments.

What do we take from these reflections? First, in situations where dramatic performance involving the presentation of characters is at stake, acting with technology requires two forms of duality simultaneously. The first is the dual awareness of inner intention – comprising the actor’s chosen trajectory for inhabiting this particular character – and what we might call rubric, the technical requirements of positioning, timing, gesture and physical disposition. This is no different from performing in film or television. The second duality, however, is more distinct. It involves a mode of performance to camera (intimate and even invasive), and a mode of performance to a co-present audience (a form of full-body engagement). Both dualities together mean that we can call this sort of performance multimodal, since it requires categorically different kinds of calibration in the same moment.

While the camera is a device for mediation, it also takes on certain personifications. It is the remorseless revealer, from which no detail will be hidden; and it is a dark void, endlessly sucking you in. To cope with the camera – better, to claim the camera – you must project your fellow performers within it, and at the same time treat it at least as intimately as you would another actor onstage. The idea here is to surrender your performance – be more open, more available, perhaps, in that sense, more abject.

This is also a matter of exteriority. While the performance register may be smaller in order to be appropriate for the camera, it remains theatrically ostensive, and available for witness. We must remember, however, that the camera is not simply observing the actor’s performance, in the same way that a spectator does (with what Annen describes as the “hot eye” of the audience). It is also a device for pushing out or transporting the performance, taking it to a different dimension for spectating. To that end, the actor both enters the camera, and lets the camera in.

A Stanislavskian approach survives and even perhaps even helps in this performance environment (but bear in mind that in the performances discussed above we are dealing with dramatic scenarios, narrative and characterization, which lend themselves to a Stanislavskian treatment). However, it requires a restatement of the line of action – more detached from the line of thought than would normally be the case – as a physical score for technical delivery. Concern with characterization, narrative and emotion is no less relevant (depending on the nature of the production), but will be rebalanced through a heightened concern with precision in timing, positioning, and the inflection of physical and vocal presentation. This also entails a recalibration of the performer’s circles of attention. These now include the enabling technical apparatus, the remote actor-colleague imagined at the other side of the camera, and the audience imagined outside the room. The circles become therefore differently spatial – virtualized. The imaginative work of the actor is redoubled, since it embraces a wider reach of attention, and the parallel presence of colleagues and spectators who may not be in the same space.

The rhythm of a production process is also affected by the interplay of different media and the performance modes that they require. The actor is more likely to have the dislocated sense that obtains in film and television shooting, where elements might be developed out of sequence, and one’s place in the eventual staging may not be entirely clear, even at the point of performance. This necessitates a particular kind of focus – narrower, on tasks at hand – and concomitantly an enhanced degree of trust in the director and other members of the production team. Once again, in this scenario, the actor submits herself to the act of performance, in order for it to be remediated through different devices and by other individuals.

There is an analogue aspect to this work. In order to have rapport with fellow performers, this is best developed genuinely, in situ, prior to the separations effected by performance to camera. Rapport and intimacy, then, leave their trace in memory, and are rekindled across virtual spaces as a form of kinetic human reciprocity. Hybrid performance has evolved in relation to the affordances of technical apparatuses and their capabilities for mediation. The actor’s time-honored tasks – of being present in relation with others, establishing visceral connections with spectators, and all the while sustaining a disciplined rubric of corporeal action – remain fundamental. If anything, they are sharpened and refreshed through their necessary place in multimodal performance.


[1] Merlin’s personal website as an actor is at <> (all online sources accessed on 1 July 2015).

[2] Complicite’s website is at <>. The Witcher video game series, launched in 2007, is developed by CD Projekt Red and published by Atari. See <>. David Annen’s IMDb webpage is at <>.

[3] With both: Hekabe (workshop development), Guildford, 2014; The Good Actor | Installation, GLAZ Digital Stages Festival, London, 2011. With Merlin: Sarajevo Story, Lyric Studio, Hammersmith, 2009. With Annen: Here’s What I Did with My Body One Day, UK tour, 2006; London / My Lover, ICA London, 2002.

[4] The project is in its development stage. A short video is at <> (password: greek).

[5] I interviewed Annen on 15 February 2015; Merlin on 19 February 2015.

[6] Merlin took a Diploma in Acting at the State Institute of Cinematography, Moscow, Russia.